Based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, Doctor Zhivago is the story of a doctor/poet during the Russian Revolution. In the present, we have Zhivago’s half brother, General Yefgraf (Alec Guinness), questioning a young girl, whom he thinks is Zhivago’s child. With a collection of Zhivago’s poems in hand, he proceeds to tell her about Yuri’s life, beginning from his childhood when his mother died, through his efforts as a doctor in the war and his hardships in the revolution.
The film quickly becomes a love story set on top of the revolution. While Yuri (Omar Sharif) is an idealistic student of medicine, he meets Lara (Julie Christie), a poor girl naively caught up with Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Later, Lara is not so helpless, breaks into a party and shoots Victor in front of Yuri. Later, in the war, Yuri and Lara find themselves working together in a makeshift hospital. These are just unfortunate meetings of chance, but can mean so much to a poet. But Lara is married to a revolutionary, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and Yuri starts his own family. As the revolution intensifies and his poems gain him an unwanted reputation, he and his family travel out to the country to live peacefully. In the nearby town, there is Lara again and soon she and Yuri start a passionate affair that does not stand a chance against the revolution closing in around them.
David Lean is one of the film masters who makes all his movies look amazing. Doctor Zhivago is full of beautiful shots using the Russian scenery and brutal snow to his advantage. The costumes, sets and little details go a long way here. There’s something poetic about shots of ice crystals on windows that melt away to usher in the daffodils of sprint. The one image that completely floored me was the snowy palace in the middle of winter. Between the beautiful Russian architecture and the amount of snow drifting all over the building, it’s an unforgettable image. The things Lean can do with snow or sand just overwhelm me.
While the film passes for a good epic, I feel that it lacks heart or personality. For example, in Lean’s masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence is an amazing character. He’s often strange but fantastic and the audience genuinely likes him. We could gush on describing him for hours. But here, Yuri Zhivago has a basic lack of characteristics. I thought for a moment how I could describe him, my list read as 1. Poet and 2. Mustache. He is such a passive protagonist, events happen around him, things happen to him. His poetic personality is hard for viewers to identify with and connect to. I acknowledge that he is a person that helps shape these events, but I don’t see those events shaping him. In real life, it is not a bad thing to just go with the flow, but in a three hour film we need more from a protagonist.
One thing that really bugged me was the fact that Yuri was an influential poet, good enough for his work to be banned, yet we never hear a word of his work. I realize that his poetry should not be at the center of the story, but it needs to be in there somewhere, perhaps it could shed some personality on Yuri. At least we see him writing a couple times.
In the end, Doctor Zhivago is a good looking epic that becomes a so-so love story. With Lean’s wonderful reputation, it’s best not to get too excited when you pick up Doctor Zhivago. I had high hopes that just became disappointments. Those snow scenes are beautiful, but can only heal so much.
“The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.”